Where to Find Music and Theatre in the North this Winter
Cultural centers that keep the creative juices flowing all winter long.
The Weathervane Theatre
If you stay in Whitefield, your chances of seeing four different major productions every night of the week are high. That’s because the Weathervane Theatre — about to celebrate its 50th year — uniquely employs a professional resident company of Actors’ Equity Association actors.
“It’s pretty amazing. It’s incredibly challenging,” says Lyn Winter, managing director of Weathervane. Winter says that it’s challenging from a director’s standpoint to put on that many shows and also for actors, who might have to perform a full range of characters in a single summer.
That’s not the only challenge the theater experiences. In 2001, Winter says that they built a new theater, only to have it burn down in October 2011. In addition, the theater is located in northern New Hampshire, which isn’t as much of a hotspot for theatre as, say, Manchester or Portsmouth.
“Compared to the Seacoast … we don’t have a large transient tourist population in the Notches,” Winter says. “We like to think we attract as many of them as possible.” Weathervane also competes with the “other great qualities of the region, which have to do with outdoor sports, all seasons of the year.”
According to Winter, Weathervane’s audiences consider themselves residents or summer residents. Basically, Weathervane attracts two-thirds of the North Country population within a 50-mile radius.
“We have some pretty fine professional theatre in northern New Hampshire,” Winter says. “We have some equally energetic theatre companies in northern New Hampshire. There seems to be an enduring interest and I’m glad we’re just part of the community.”
In addition to professional live theatre, Weathervane has a children’s camp in August and an intern program for college students.
“We look at our mission not just to bring in a show but to introduce the entire population to the really unique experience of live theatre,” Winter says. “I don’t think there’s anything like it on the face of the earth.”
Winter says the mission is to entertain and add to the quality of life in the North Country.
“I believe in what we do, and I believe in what we add to the lives of our friends, neighbors and visitors,” she says.
Based in Lebanon, it’s not really part of the North Country, but this 34-year-old company has a mission to offer fine performing arts to as many people as it can in underserved areas of New Hampshire.
“We are continually working to reach as many potential audience members as we can,” says Laurie Sepulveda, marketing director for Opera North. “We like to extend our reach to the North Country whenever possible.”
The company started out as purely an opera company. However, three years ago, Opera North began to perform classical musical theatre as well as Broadway-style productions. Sepulveda says that the goal was to reach a wider audience because the opera world can be a narrow group, as people think about the socioeconomics of it.
“We wanted to bring the amazing vocal performances as well as visual stimuli from the opera and we wanted to make it more accessible,” Sepulveda says. So far, it’s working. Ticket sales go up by about 15 percent each year, and they go up even more for Opera North’s Broadway-style performances, according to Sepulveda.
For her, an important component of Opera North is its education and outreach program. She says the southern part of the state has so many arts organizations, but there isn’t an equitable distribution to the rest of the state. For the past 10 years, Opera North has tried to fill that gap.
“We have various programs for education and outreach, most of which are free or are provided at-cost to the public,” she says. “We travel to basically any school in New Hampshire that answers our response and we perform age-appropriate concerts and operas and provide study guides for teachers.”
Sepulveda’s son is an example of the education program’s success.
“Opera North held a free camp for children this past June,” she says. “My 7-year-old son was able to participate and work with a New York director. He was actually part of one of the Opera North professional productions in August. For me to watch [my son] be able to participate in this free music camp and have exposure to so many amazing professionals, that’s been my favorite memory so far.”
The Tillotson Center
The Tillotson Center in Colebrook is everything that a small North Country town needs for cultural enhancement. Not only is it a place for theatre, but it also shows movies, houses an art gallery and has a heritage museum in its basement.
John Kaufmann, the man who designed, pushed, shoved and made the Tillotson Center happen, recalls the moment of its conception. “I think it was 2006,” he says. “A couple of crazy people got together and said ‘Gee, it would be nice to get together and have something else to do other than drink.”
Kaufmann says that a friend was having financial troubles. The friend had an old Grange hall, and Kaufmann and his friends thought it would work well if they wanted to make a theater. Together, they put $30,000 forth to buy it in 2006 and have been working on it ever since.
“When we started off, our first shows, we had to borrow folding chairs for the show,” Kaufmann says. It has taken eight years to make the Tillotson Center what it is today. And now, Kaufmann says, “It’s become a major community center, which is what I hoped for.”
The center is almost finished. The rest is complete, with the theater offering 170 seats and the gallery on the first floor being used for all kinds of functions. Various groups — like the Colebrook Historical Society — are involved in the center, and schools use the theater for productions.
“It has a state-of-the-art Bose sound system. It’s equipped to show full-featured movies. It’s clean, modern,” Kaufmann says.
Aside from fancy sound systems and indoor amenities, people have also been using the verandas and the lawn outside.
“Our mission is to be the center of life for the surrounding area,” Kaufmann says. “And it’s starting to happen.”
Mountain Top Music Center
Even without its own performing center (yet), the Mountain Top Music Center manages to attract 300 to 400 students from areas as far reaching as Wolfeboro, Sandwich and Pinkham Notch.
The center’s primary function is as a school, attracting students from all ages (even retirees in their 70s who want to start playing piano) and backgrounds. Despite the lack of a performing facility, students still get the chance to perform. According to Executive Director George Wiese, the center has home and public concert series as well as a 24-hour music festival and frequent student recitals.
“We do concert series in peoples’ homes,” Wiese says. He adds that it’s possible because of the “spectacular homes” in the mountains that are able to host 40 or more guests. He also says that the series is successful and that they always bring in guest artists. Traveling to different homes also helps to bring series into different towns and to unite the community through music.
Even though the center attracts quite a few students, Wiese admits that there are challenges.
“We’re never sure how much we’re able to grow in a small area,” Wiese says. The center likes to facilitate student ensembles — usually “quartets or a half-a-dozen student ensemble.” He would like to provide the community with a 40-member youth orchestra.
Overall, though, Wiese doesn’t seem to think it’s hard to attract students to a music school in the mountains.
“There’s a vibrant little arts scene down here. Families are aware of us in the community,” Wiese says. He also says that it’s the only organization dedicated to music education — 50 miles in each direction. In a place where you have to drive far for everything, Weise says that the school gives people a chance to get connected with other members of the community.
“It brings people together.”
St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts
On the outside, it’s a beautiful old church building. On the inside, it’s still an old church building, but one that’s been transformed into the St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts in Berlin.
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” says Executive Director Monique Lavertu. “The acoustics in here are incredible. It was built for projection from the altar area. Of course, that’s all been removed and replaced with a stage.”
With all of the pews still in place, the center can seat about 310 audience members. According to Lavertu, she has seen as few as 50 audience members and as many as 170. “We certainly have room to grow,” she says.
The performances range from an 18-piece jazz band and productions of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to saxophone quartets. Some groups don’t even need a sound system because the acoustics are so good, Lavertu says. “It’s working out really great.”
Attracting people to the North Country center has been difficult. “We’re a nonprofit. There’s not a lot of money to spend on marketing,” Lavertu says. Fortunately for St. Kieran’s, the community has contributed to the effort. Lavertu says they got a grant this year; the center simply couldn’t exist without memberships and grant partners. It helps, since Lavertu says “Non-profit arts centers don’t typically make enough at the door to cover [expenses].”
The center has gotten grants from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund and the Doris Benz Foundation. Thanks to all of the donations, grants, memberships and more, Lavertu has been able to dedicate some money to put up signs, work on social media and market in the town papers. The center also relies on word of mouth. “It’s small-town USA, so people talk,” she laughs.
All the marketing is to celebrate the area, which is the art center’s mission.
“In a nutshell, [the center] is celebrating the cultural heritage of our area. We do a lot of French- and Irish-based entertainment. But we’re also looking to bring a broad range of quality programming to the area,” Lavertu says.
There are some great events coming up at YourTheatre, home of M&D Productions, located in North Conway. "Other Dessert Cities" is wrapping up the weekend of January 23 and coming in February is "Next Thing You Know." In April you can catch Arthur Miller's classic "Death of a Salesman." Celebrate Hollywood's big night with the upcoming Oscar Party on Feb. 22. YourTheatre, 1857 White Mountain Highway, North Conway. Call (603) 733-5275 or visit the website for more information.